When I’m asked about my cruising adventures in the Pacific Northwest, most people nod appreciatively when I say I love cruising the San Juan and Canadian Gulf Islands. They know something about the natural beauty, the wildlife, the charming island towns and marinas. But when I mention the amazing cruising grounds of the Broughton Archipelago, I’m rewarded with a blank stare. No one has any idea what I’m talking about.
The Broughton Archipelago was named by Captain Vancouver for the commander of one of his ship’s during the famous exploration of 1792 when many of the now familiar English names were bestowed on the complicated waterways and over 240,000 islands along the vast coastline of British Columbia. They are a remote group of 200-plus islands that are squeezed between the northern British Columbia Coast and the north end of Vancouver Island. To give some perspective of what I mean by remote, it’s important to understand the distances involved. British Columbia is larger than any state in the U.S except Alaska. As the crow flies, the length of its coastline is 600 miles. The distance from Anacortes, Washington, a popular jumping-off spot for cruisers in the San Juans, to the Broughtons is 233 miles. It would take most boats the better part of a week to cover this much water, some of which is difficult navigation due to currents and tide anomalies. Because of this, the only recreational boaters that venture as far north as the Broughtons are those on the way to Alaska and those who are passionate boaters who make summertime adventures on these coastal waters a top priority.
My husband, Peter, and I identify with passionate cruisers, and so we count ourselves among the few who have had the opportunity to visit the Broughtons — two times. The first trip was aboard our lobster boat, Bee Weems. We made the journey from Anacortes five years ago exploring this watery wilderness for three weeks before returning to civilization. We loved the wildness, the astounding grandeur of dense rainforests sloping to the sea, white capped mountains, the abundance of isolated anchorages and the interesting people we met along the way.
Our second opportunity to visit the Broughtons came in an unexpected way. Following our first cruise we continued to correspond with a couple from San Francisco who we met up there. This couple, also smitten by the desire to explore wild places, keeps their 58 foot West Bay Sonship on the south end of Vancouver Island, a great springboard for their cruising adventures every summer. Last summer, they invited us to join them as guests aboard their boat in the Broughtons. Without hesitation we accepted their invitation, and then we began to research how to meet them up there.
The only way to get to the upper reaches of the coastal waters of British Columbia, if you can’t go by boat, is by seaplane. Northwest Seaplane provides daily flights to many BC island destinations from its Seattle base at the south end of Lake Washington. At the recommendation of our hosts, Peter and I bought tickets on a regularly scheduled flight to Sullivan Bay, where they would meet us.
Seaplane travel is an adventure in itself. The combination of being pried into what feels like a tin can and then speeding along at low altitudes over great expanses of city and water and then trees and mountains is exhilarating. Our little plane was full with seven people including the pilot. Our pilot was chatty and enjoyed playing the role of pilot, flight attendant and tour guide all at once. Each passenger was assigned a pair of industrial-sized headphones to hear the pilot talk and to protect our ears from the loud engine rumblings. We found out that the other two couples on board were to be dropped off at a private island on the way to Sullivan Bay. This stopover was a welcome break on our over two-and-a-half hour trip north. The weather was spectacular, and we had unobstructed views of almost unimaginable beauty.
There were no cities or towns to see as the plane continued north. There weren’t even any roads besides the occasional logging roads leading to patches of clear-cut forests. The only building structures were marinas that service the summer recreational boating community, a couple of fishing resorts and a few First Nation communities. The number of people who live full time in the Broughtons is probably less than 1,000.
Sullivan Bay Marina is one of a handful of floating villages in the Broughton Islands. It hugs the north shore of North Broughton Island. The island mountain plunges sharply into the deep water with no space to build roads or buildings on land. This quaint village exists for the benefit of boaters. It is a marina with ample dockage, fuel, water, power, a general store, a shower and laundry facilities, and at one end of the horseshoe-shaped dock lined with floating buildings is the international airport, where two or three seaplanes arrive and depart every day from the U.S. and Canada.
The arrival of our seaplane was the main event of the day. As we gathered our luggage from the rear of the small seaplane,our hosts waved as they walked down the dock from their boat at the other end of the marina to retrieve us. Their beautiful boat, Mellow Moments, would be our home for the next week, as we cruised through this spectacular wild region of BC.
Over lunch we discussed our cruising itinerary, the weather, the wildlife spotted to date, the books read, the best places to set crab and shrimp pots, and gradually, Pete and I began to slow down to the gentler pace of life that comes from leaving civilization and blending into nature and the cruising lifestyle.
Over the course of our week-long trip we cruised narrow fjords with snowcapped mountains rising on both sides of the boat. We anchored in protective coves and watched grizzly bears uncover rocks to feast on crabs. We kayaked into shallow waters to get close to seabirds and watch the sunset in the stillness. We gathered the bounty of the sea — shrimp and crab — for delicious meals on the aft deck. We rafted up with other cruising boats for good company, storytelling and shared meals.
At the end of the week, we pulled into the legendary cruisers’ gathering place, Pierre’s Echo Bay Marina. Arguably the most popular of the Broughton marina villages, Pierre’s brings the cruising community together with signature events like the Saturday Night Pig Roast, so popular that reservations are required. The owners, Pierre and Tove, have kept this bustling marina vibrant for over 40 summer seasons. Centrally located on Gilford Island, the largest in the Archipelago, this community offers all the amenities of a marina plus a wood-burning hot tub and a group of chair swings surrounding a hillside fire pit where boaters gather in the evenings to share stories. The only post office in the Broughtons is here, plus the more advanced methods of staying in touch with civilization are available, including WiFi, off and on cellphone service and an
international seaplane airport.
An additional benefit unique to Echo Bay is the proximity to the home and museum of Billy Proctor, one of the few people who has lived his whole life in the Broughtons. Billy’s Museum is a collection of relics and artifacts he has gathered for over 50 years. The museum is open if he is there. More interesting than the museum are Billy’s stories of life in this wilderness. He is well into retirement years now, but he worked as a hand logger, fisherman and beachcomber, and he knows a lot about the ancient traditions of the First Nations people who lived in this area for thousands of years.
Another opportunity that many cruisers take advantage of here in Pierre’s Bay is the opportunity to set up custom ecotourism adventures with Nikki van Schyndel, who has made Echo Bay her home base.
Our hosts arranged to spend our final day with this fascinating young woman, a self-described survivalist. Nikki’s book, “Becoming Wild,” describes her deep yearning to reconnect with nature and reawaken long-forgotten instincts and perceptions. Echo tours are the way she shares with others the knowledge she gained from her yearlong struggle and triumph in the wild. Nikki picked us up at the dock in her well-worn 18-foot runabout. Because of my interest in the history of the First Nation people, she suggested we go on a 20 mile open sea trip to a forgotten native community on Village Island for a picnic lunch. Along the way, she showed us ancient pictographs and told stories about her encounters with wildlife and her deep respect for nature.
As we explored the ancient village, Mamalilaculla, which appropriately means “village with rocks and islands out front,” Nikki gathered wild onions and herbs, built a fire using a bow-drill and made us a delicious hot one-pan meal with wild rice and smoked salmon. The combination of watching Nikki’s skillful use of ancient survival techniques and the evidence of ancient middens and totems from the lost Native culture that thrived in these islands before first contact with “civilization,” made me uncomfortably aware of how disconnected from nature humanity has come.
On our flight home, I vowed to hold the feeling of reconnection with the wild: this reminder to live simply and appreciate the beauty around me, until my next wilderness cruising adventure.